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  • The death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman has stirred controversy and conspiracy theories in the South American country

    The death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman has stirred controversy and conspiracy theories in the South American country | Photo: Archivo

Although he is portrayed as a man who died looking for the truth, Nisman was far from being a justice hero.

On 18 January the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment in Buenos Aires. A few days before he had returned from his vacations in Europe and presented a shocking and unexpected accusation. He claimed that he had proved that President Cristina Kirchner and the Foreign Minister Hector Timerman were in the process of orchestrating a cover-up in the investigation of Iran over the 1994 bombing of AMIA (the main Jewish community center of Argentina) that left 85 dead. He presented his proofs – a lengthy 289-page report – to a federal judge, who was not able to immediately reveal its content, as it mentioned Argentine intelligence agents by name. The opposition summoned Nisman to the Congress to present his findings. The meeting, scheduled for the 19 January, was never held, as Nisman died few hours before.

In the polarized political life of Argentina, the case was immediately used for political purposes. The main newspapers and TV channels, sworn enemies of the government, sparked doubts over the circumstances of Nisman’s death, suggesting that he was either murdered or pushed to commit suicide in a last-minute attempt to prevent his presentation at the Congress. Politicians in the opposition immediately fueled similar theories. Hundreds of people set to the streets carrying placards “I am Nisman” (or “Je suis Nisman” written in French, as an echo of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrations), blaming the government for the death of an honest man who had uncovered its dirty secrets. “I am Nisman” became trending topic in social networks, while anti-Kirchner intellectuals and journalists proclaimed that the murder/induced suicide of Nisman was the symbol of the death of the Republic under Kirchner’s administration. Similar stories were soon reproduced by the international media, which used the case as yet another example of the phantasmal threat of Latin American “populism” and for other purposes (including the bashing of Obama over his Iran policy).

The government officials responded clumsily, firstly rushing to proclaim that it was an obvious case of suicide (before any forensic analysis of the evidence), and shortly afterwards claiming, without any proofs, that it was a murder ordered by an obscure alliance between rogue intelligence agents and the owners of Clarín, the main news corporation of Argentina. In this explanation, the purpose of the crime was to destabilize Cristina Kirchner’s government: the murderers firstly pushed Nisman to present an absurd accusation against the president and then killed him, so as to make it look as a political assassination. Some of the pro-government intellectuals and journalists proclaimed that Nisman’s death was part of a coup d’état attempt orchestrated by the USA.

The manipulation of the information, already epidemic in Argentina, reached bizarre proportions, as several people tried to profit from this death for political or personal purposes. Newspapers published unreliable or deliberately false information (such as Clarín’s allegation that a source from the forensic investigation said that the gun that killed Nisman was triggered at 15cm of the head and therefore was no suicide). The Buenos Aires Herald journalist Damian Patcher left the country in a hurry and found shelter in Tel Aviv – a city he nevertheless called “home” – after claiming that his life was in danger as he had ruined the plans of the government to conceal Nisman’s death (he was the first journalist who tweeted that there were strange movements in the prosecutor’s apartment, but he did that at a time when Nisman’s mother and other people were already there). Patcher’s rather imaginative story about Argentine spies following him while he was trying to escape from the country gained him international notoriety, but was not even backed by his own newspaper, which took it with a grain of salt.

Politicians were not slower at profiting from Nisman’s fate. To give but few examples, Sergio Massa (who has good chances to become Argentina’s next president), formally requested to be regarded a plaintiff in the investigation of AMIA’s bombing and/or of Nisman’s denunciation – he was unsure of which one he was talking about –, something that is legally impossible but gave him some nice newspaper headlines. The mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri – another favorite for the next presidential elections – appeared in a press conference, saying he was deeply concerned for the future of the Republic and of the AMIA case. He conveniently forgot that he appointed Jorge “el fino” Palacios as chief of the new local police that he created in 2009. Palacios is currently under indictment in the AMIA court case, considered a participant in the crime of concealment, a role that was perfectly clear when Macri appointed him.

Macri himself is indicted in another case for having used his new police for illegal telephone hearings of, among others, Jorge Burstein, spokesperson of one of the associations of relatives of the AMIA victims, who was leading the campaign against Palacio’s appointment. Eight days after the prosecutor’s death, the versatile Patricia Bullrich – part of Menem’s troupe at the time of AMIA’s bombing, now Macri’s ally – had a sudden recollection. She told a newspaper that she had had a meeting with Nisman the day before his death, in which the prosecutor said that some spy linked to Iran had betrayed him – she cannot provide any names or additional information, though – which gained her invaluable press coverage. Strangely enough, she had not mentioned that fact in the several descriptions of that meeting that she had offered to the media in previous days.

So what do we really know about this whole matter?

Who was Alberto Nisman?

Although he is portrayed as a man who died looking for the truth, Nisman was far from being a justice hero. He was the prosecutor in charge of the investigation of AMIA’s bombing for many years and his role there was indeed obscure.

Long time ago, some of the people who knew the details of that investigation pointed out that in 1994, from day one after the bombing, before any single piece of evidence was produced, Argentinean president Carlos Menem had agreed with the U.S. and Israel to blame Iran. For the U.S. and Israel, it was of an obvious geopolitical interest. For Menem, whose international policy was defined as one of “carnal relations” (sic) with the U.S., it was not only a matter of pleasing his friends, but also of covering up himself. Indeed, as we later knew, some of the hints of the initial investigation pointed to the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who had financed Menem’s presidential campaign (Carlos Menem is from a Syrian-Lebanese family) and was by then deeply disappointed with his foreign policy and with other domestic promises that he had not kept.

We still do not have the slightest clue as to who ordered AMIA’s bombing. It could well have been Iran. But the truth is that the Syrian lead was never examined and that that was a deliberate decision. The continuity of Israel’s interest in getting Syria off the hook after the initial moments and in the past recent years is not well documented, but the U.S.’ is. More importantly, there was a conspiracy to mislead the investigation of the local complicities, in which Menem and Juan José Galeano, the first judge in charge of the case (later removed and now under trial), among others, were involved.

Alberto Nisman was instrumental in both forms of judicial manipulation. As the Wikileaks affair exposed, he was practically working for the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires, which was pushing to leave the Syrian lead in oblivion and to close the local chapter of the investigation as soon as possible. Nisman would take as undeniable facts all of the “intelligence information” that the embassy gave him without further examination. He reported every single of his decisions to the embassy before informing the new judge appointed to the case. He even took at least one of his rulings to the embassy to get it corrected before presenting it. He simply ignored the judge, who urged him repeatedly to pursue other leads apart from the Iranian and to check with other sources the information that the US was giving him.

But more importantly, Nisman was instrumental in the false accusation forged against a bunch of Argentinean policemen who had supposedly helped the Iranians in the bombing, by means of which Menem and his associates were hoping to close the local chapter of the investigation. Argentina’s intelligence agency SI was in charge of that operation, which continued under the next presidents –including Fernando de la Rúa, from the Unión Cívica Radical, and Eduardo Duhalde, whose Secretary of Intelligence, Miguel Ángel Toma, is now Sergio Massa’s close ally. As Claudio Lifschitz, the man who exposed the covering-up of the local connection, said recently, Nisman endorsed the accusation against those policemen in full knowledge that they were innocent. Luckily, the court in charge of that case dismissed the whole investigation and demanded a new one.

All this information about Nisman was perfectly known (for instance, I referred to his responsibility in the failure of the investigation in a 2009 newspaper piece). Shortly before he died two of the associations of relatives of the victims of the 1994 bombing were openly saying that Nisman was "part of the old covering-up maneuvers” (APEMIA) and that he represented “the interests not of the victims, but of those who covered up” the bombing (Memoria Activa). The sad story is that none of the main political parties in Argentina was keen on questioning Nisman’s behavior before he came up with his denunciation of Cristina Kirchner.

Santiago O'Donnell, the journalist who investigated the Wikileaks concerning Argentina, included large sections and a whole chapter exposing Nisman in his books Argenleaks (2011) and Politileaks (2014). As he recently explained in his blog, no newspaper – including the pro-Kirchner Página 12, where he still works – was willing to report on this part of the Wikileaks revelations. Both the Kirchners and the opposition backed Nisman wholeheartedly, either because they did not want to confront American and Israeli interests, or because it was comforting to believe in Nisman’s claims that he had resolved AMIA’s case. Now that his death is useful for political purposes, the opposition continues to overlook his obscure behavior. Even journalists and intellectuals who are perfectly aware of Nisman’s past – including top Clarín’s columnist Jorge Lanata, who once wrote that the prosecutor’s AMIA investigation was totally fictitious – prefer not to mention it these days.

How dangerous is Nisman’s accusation against the government?

In few words, Nisman’s argument is that Cristina Kirchner masterminded a secret plan to absolve Iranian officials accused of the 1994 bombing in return for deliveries of much-needed oil from Iran. Having that goal in mind, in 2013 she obtained approval from the Congress for an international treaty of cooperation with that country, known as the Memorandum of Understanding, that established a sort of international “truth commission” with the alleged purpose of interrogating the suspects in Teheran. The real purpose – the argument goes – was to get Interpol arrest warrants against the Iranian officials dropped, which Foreign Minister Timerman tried (but failed) to do. The evidence that Nisman presented in his report rely almost entirely on telephone hearings of the alleged agents of both sides: among others one representative of the Muslim community in Argentina (speaking on behalf of the Iranians), the former piquetero leader Luis D’Elía (Cristina’s man), and an agent of Argentina’s Intelligence Agency (SI). No person in office or with formal ties with the government was included in the recordings.

By now, those who made the effort of reading Nisman’s 289-page report have concluded that it is of no legal substance. Even the newspaper La Nación, a fierce enemy of the government, had to report that the denunciation made little sense in legal terms. And it’s not just a matter of proofs being unconvincing. Some of Argentina’s best-reputed jurists said that they could not even discern which law was supposedly breached. Even if such plan existed in the president’s mind, none of the steps towards implementing it were actually made (which makes the offense abstract). The only step allegedly taken was signing the Memorandum. But an international treaty approved by law of a Congress, as they explained, can never constitute a crime. A law can certainly be a bad law, it can be stupid or harmful, it can be unconstitutional; but by definition, passing such law can never be held as a criminal act.

In terms of the proofs, Nisman’s report was also weak. As the Buenos Aires Herald put it, it “fails to fan flames of conspiracy”. Immediately after the brief was released, Ronald Noble – Secretary-General of Interpol between 2000 and 2014 and mentioned by Nisman as prospective witness – issued a strong statement saying that the prosecutor’s allegations were false, and that Timerman not only had never sought to annul the warrants issued for the Iranian suspects, but that he “passionately” requested their continuity after the Memorandum was signed. On the other hand, after the name was known, the government informed that the alleged secret agent recorded in the telephone hearings was not such thing, and that the SI had filed a lawsuit against him in the past for pretending to be one.

As for Luis D’Elía, he is a notorious member of the kirchnerist movement. In 2003 Néstor Kirchner had appointed him in a minor position in his government, but D’Elía was asked to resign in 2006 after he voiced his support for Iran’s controversial president Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Since 2006 he has had no formal place in government, although it is true that he consorts with important state officials. A well-known pro-Iran speaker, in the telephone hearings he appears promoting the end of the sanctions against the Iranians, promising forthcoming results, and showing off his good connections with the government. A notorious man often accused of being an anti-Semite (even by renowned members of the government) and scorned by the press every second day, he is an unlikely choice for the role of an International Man of Mystery. Even the CIA believes, according to Clarín, that Nisman’s denunciation is inconsistent and that D’Elía should not be taken seriously.

Finally, the whole purpose of the conspiracy that Nisman denounced sounds weird. After many years actively endorsing Argentina’s case against Iran in all the international forums, in 2013 Cristina Kirchner suddenly changed her mind and started to mastermind a secret plan to leave Iran off the hook. What for? For oil, Nisman argued. But Argentina does not need or import oil in relevant quantities and it has never imported it from Iran (as, for technical reasons, Iran’s oil cannot be processed in Argentinean refineries). When the country had to import oil in the past it did it from other sources, such as Bolivia, Nigeria or Angola. Argentina does import large quantities of fuel oil and gas from other countries but not from Iran, which is not even capable of exporting such items.

So how did Nisman die?

The judicial investigation has not concluded yet, so basically nobody knows anything on solid grounds. The evidence analyzed so far has concluded that Nisman died of a gunshot triggered at less than 1cm of his head, and that it came from the gun that was found under his body, in the bathroom where he died. The rest of the evidence analyzed so far strongly suggests that Nisman killed himself: the door of the bathroom was closed and blocked by the prosecutor´s own body and there is no evidence that the corpse could have been moved there from some other place. No-one else’s DNA was found in the bathroom and no relevant hint of a murder was yet presented. If it was suicide, then the investigators will have to check if it was somehow induced or if, as some commentators have argued, it was the reaction of a desperate man who understood that the denunciation he had just presented was not going to convince anyone and that his career was sinking (Ronald Noble’s statement discrediting his allegations and the criticism of APEMIA and Memoria Activa were aired just before his death).

If it was an induced suicide, a key person to resolve the mystery seems to be Diego Lagomarsino, the man who took the killing gun to the prosecutor’s apartment few hours before the death. Lagomarsino was one of Nisman’s closest associates, and he claims that he lent the weapon at the request of the prosecutor, who told him that he needed it in case “some lunatic attacked him on the street”. Nobody knows who Lagomarsino really is, but two informants have already said that he worked in the intelligence business.

Of course, murder cannot be dismissed as a hypothesis. After all, Nisman was working in a case in which the Argentinean intelligence agency (SI) and the CIA were involved and had strong interests of their own. Suspected framed suicides are not unknown to Argentina or to other countries, including the US or the UK (take for instance the recent cases of Theodore S. Westhusing and David Kelly, both related to Middle Eastern affairs). Although assassination is a rather common practice among CIA agents, no hints indicate that the US may have been involved this time (at least not directly).

As for the SI, it has been out of control for a long time. A month before Nisman’s death, the government had decided to purge it, by removing several agents, including its chief-in-the-shadows Antonio “Jaime” Stiusso. Stiusso had been working at the SI since 1972 and was highly appreciated by the CIA and the Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency). Besides, he was Nisman’s main source of information in the AMIA case for the past ten years, as the prosecutor publicly acknowledged several times, and also in his recent denunciation against the Cristina Kirchner. The government is now pointing to Stiusso as the hidden hand behind Nisman’s death, and has now decided to dissolve the SI altogether and create a wholly new intelligence agency under the supervision of the Congress. Other non-kirchnerist voices have also pointed to Stiusso and even the CIA allegedly believes that Nisman’s death is somehow related to internal disputes within the SI.

Again in this case, politicians of all persuasions seem to have discovered now that the SI is out of control (with the exception of Miguel Angel Toma, who set out to support Stiusso, which seems to confirm earlier speculations that the agent is now working for Sergio Massa). But many of them profited from its services in all these years and turned a blind eye when Gustavo Béliz, one of Néstor Kirchner’s Ministers, denounced Stiusso in 2004 for using illegal telephone hearings to blackmail magistrates and politicians (after that Béliz was asked to quit and felt he needed to live abroad for a decade).

In the past several years the Congress special commission in charge of monitoring the activities and budget of the SI was almost inactive. That commission is composed by deputies and senators of all political parties; after 2010 it was presided by an anti-kirchnerist.

These are some of the awkward facts behind a story in which the distinction of good and evil is a lot more complicated than it first appears. Unfortunately, the majority of the local and international voices that we have heard so far seem to be primarily interested in Argentina’s coming elections and/or in the future of the Middle East. Finding the truth about the two most important issues at stake here –AMIA’s bombing and the circumstances of Nisman’s death– is not the main point in their agenda.




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